Trust and education

Razib Khan of Gene Expression has put together a series of charts on changes in trust in the United States over the last 40 years. The trust data comes from the General Social Survey, and shows a slight decline in trust over this time.

Besides some interesting results, such as the level of trust in the media, what struck me was the strength of the link between trust and education or vocabulary scores.

This result is consistent with earlier findings that trust correlates with IQ, as I discussed in my recent post. While that post focussed on the implications of increased trust on a country’s institutions, these results show that a range of trust levels exist within a country under these same macro-level institutions.

One interpretation of this is that within a country, there is assortment by IQ and education levels, which can allow micro-level institutions in which trust is rewarded to develop. What that implies, of course, is that lower IQ groups face a micro-institutional framework in which people behave in a less trustworthy way.

One commenter to Khan’s post suggested that high IQ people are more able to judge whether someone is trustworthy. I tend to agree with Khan’s response – that one can be trusting in an environment where trustworthiness flourishes. I would suggest that in many situations, high-IQ people are as likely to get fleeced as other people, but fortunately high-IQ people tend to live in environments where this is unlikely.

Author: Jason Collins

Economics. Behavioural and data science. PhD economics and evolutionary biology. Blog at

5 thoughts on “Trust and education”

  1. One reason to act in a trustworthy way towards someone is that if you cross them they are capable of effective retribution. If high IQ people have more resources available for retribution, they may have a justifiably greater expectation that people will act in a trustworthy way towards them.

    In a society where the state has monopolized the use of force and thereby denied its citizens many means of retribution that do not draw upon IQ, those with IQ may lack means of retribution and hence be incapable of giving others a credible reason to act in a trustworthy way towards them.

    You see this in practice every once and a while. A big firm lawyer who is screwed over in a minor consumer transaction may devote economically irrational resources relative to the harm involved to punishing the wrong doer. An economically marginal day laborer may write off the swindle as one more indignity among many. Individually, this seems irrational, but these isolated events may confer collective value.

  2. If less-educated people have found others untrustworthy, WHICH others? Fellow less-educated people, or bankers, real-estate agents, doctors, etc.?

    Any research on the relative importance of reputation for trustworthiness in different communities?

    1. Most of the evidence on trust and IQ that I am aware of is from games played with strangers, so the lack of trust is not specific to the group that they are associating with. As to how they modify the level of trust according to the person they are dealing with, I don’t know. I am also not aware of any research that ties in trust, IQ and reputation beyond games in experiments.

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